Find expert commentary — video and game annotations — by well-known coach and author IM Robert Ris at the end of the article.
Ding Liren played it cool in the opening, avoiding deep theoretical lines; Ian Nepomniachtchi was not very precise early on, but then outplayed his opponent in the middlegame; inexplicably, the Russian began to play quickly in a double-edged position; mistakes were made by both players; and, finally, a blunder by Nepo put a sudden end to the game.
Nepo’s tendency to play quickly even in double-edged positions is as often admired as it is negatively criticized. Given his collapse after losing a memorable game 6 in the 2021 match for the title, Nepo’s performance on Wednesday naturally brought up red flags.
The Indian legend dubbed it as the “Ian curse”, and it remains to be seen whether this meltdown will take a toll on Nepo going forward. Up to this point, both contenders had shown signs of nerves affecting their decisions, but Nepo’s ability to retain his composure had also been highlighted as a relevant factor for his gaining a 1-point advantage.
Ding, on his part, seems to have found his mojo in Astana, at least according to what he said in the post-game press conference. His emotional perception regarding the contest’s significance became the real challenge for him, in fact:
With two games to go, the score tied and two fighters at heart starring the show, we can only sit and enjoy the final chapters of a memorable confrontation.
— Anish Giri (@anishgiri) April 26, 2023
It was painful to watch Ian Nepomniachtchi’s collapse | Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage
“Like the boxing matches in the Rocky movies”
Jonathan Rowson thus described the final stages of game 12:
This game has been wild and random, like the boxing matches in the Rocky movies. They are somehow just lunging at each other and hoping for the best. The nervous tension has clearly got to both of them.
In his penultimate game with white (while a point down on the scoreboard), Ding chose to play the harmless-looking Colle System — 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 d5 3.e3. Peter Heine Nielsen, a long-time second of Magnus Carlsen, used a basketball analogy to describe what Ding needed to do after seeing his supply of opening surprises running out in the last few games.
The WC-match has entered the stage where preparations have run out long ago, and star players say, “Just give me the ball, I’ll figure something out”.
Notwithstanding, it was Nepo who played the novelty in the game, going for a modest-looking 6…Bd7 in a position full of strategic possibilities.
The contenders played confidently until reaching move 12, when Ding spent almost half an hour on 12.Bxf6. Nepo knew this was a critical juncture, as after 12…gxf6 13.Ng3 he spent over 20 minutes on 13…f5.
A courageous Ding pushed his pawn to g4 four moves later.
The stage was set for a fighting middlegame, and bold play by both contenders made for a highly entertaining spectacle.
In the next ten moves, Nepo never spent more than six minutes on a single decision, and his accurate manoeuvres gave him a clear advantage. Curiously, Ding also played quickly in this stage of the game, and he was lucky to see his opponent failing to “sit on his hands” when the position called for a deeper examination.
27…Nf3 is the most critical move here, and Nepo would have surely realized that it is also the manoeuvre that keeps his advantage (and leaves White in deep trouble) — had he spent more than 27 seconds on his decision!
(The forcing continuation goes 27…Nf3 28.Qc6 Nxe1 29.Qxa8+ Rg8 30.Qe4 and 30…Nxc2, when Black gets rid of the dangerous light-squared bishop and is clearly for choice.)
Nepo instead went for 27…Rag8, and a ping-pong of imprecisions followed. Commentator Fabiano Caruana, a former World Championship challenger himself, had this to say about the unbelievable sequence:
This is pure nerves at this point. It’s no longer about chess.
The rollercoaster ride continued, although the engines never gave any of the players more than a small edge in their evaluations.
And then Nepo self-destructed.
White has been permanently threatening to play d5, with a scary discovered check along the dark-squared diagonal. If Black keeps most of his army in place, he has enough resources to deal with the attack, though.
But Nepo’s impulsive 34…f5 lost the game at once, as Ding only needed a bit more than one minute to play 35.Rxe6, the easy-to-find refutation (all the alternatives are almost losing for White, by the way). And there is no defence for Black.
Nepo let the spectators see his emotional collapse, as he spent 16 minutes contemplating the position and the horrible mistake he had just made. Olimpiu Di Luppi shared a short yet revealing clip from the live webcast.
A chess tragedy. Resignation came three moves later.
Very much in contention — Ding Liren | Photo: FIDE / Stev Bonhage
Expert analysis by IM Robert Ris – Video and annotated game
Middlegame Secrets Vol.1 + Vol.2
Let us learn together how to find the best spot for the queen in the early middlegame, how to navigate this piece around the board, how to time the queen attack, how to decide whether to exchange it or not, and much more!
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